Fiction by Gary Every
The table resembled a Medieval torture device. It was known as a four-point restraining table, and it came in handy in a hospital emergency room. In time, I would become used to such devices, but this story took place while I was still doing my residency, when I was new to the crazy chaos of the emergency room. It came as quite a shock when I saw my first human being restrained inside the table. There were fixed points for securing every arm and leg to the table in a spread-eagle pose. There were waist straps for cinching the torso and bands to further lash the limbs tight. Worst of all, was the head clamp, a padded metal band that could be tightened until the unfortunate person’s skull was trapped against the table without even being able to turn from side to side. The first person I ever saw imprisoned on the four-point restraining table was Herman.
Herman was a tiny, tiny human being, old and toothless. He couldn’t have been more than five-foot-four inches tall and 110 pounds. His black skin sagged. Herman’s face was sunken in, and all his teeth were missing from years of smoking crack. Surviving as a homeless man in the ghettos of Detroit must have been more of a horror than I can possibly imagine. Herman had made an occupation of being beaten, raped, robbed, and victimized. Being strapped tightly to a table was just another example of that victimization. Still, when I saw Herman for the first time, he was smiling that big toothless smile from ear to ear — strapped down flat on his back, secure and motionless.
Herman was so small that every single strap had to be pulled as tight as it would cinch in order to pin his skinny torso to the table. His meatless arms had to be stretched as far as he could reach, in order to be secured to the posts — straps locking his wrists. His feet and ankles were wrapped and double wrapped, just in case he wanted to kick someone with those toothpicks he called legs. And of course, the tiny, tiny man had an itty-bitty skull, and that meant the head clamp was tightened to the fullest capacity. As I walked into the ER for my third day of residency, there was tiny little Herman, pinned down on the four-point restraining table, and the orderly was tightening the head clamp. It looked like they were turning screws into his brain.
The whole scene was so horrific that I could not help but look — the way you feel compelled to stare at a traffic accident. Without meaning to, I made eye contact. That was when I looked into Herman’s big, beautiful eyes. He stared back, and we locked gazes for a moment, sizing each other up. Then, I remembered the horror of the restraining table, and I tried to walk away, but it was too late.
“Hey, Doc!” Herman cried out, in a squeaky voice that fit his tiny body. “You gotta help me.”
There were three large orderlies beside the four-point restraining table, each of them looking large enough to handle tiny little Herman without breaking a sweat. The table hardly seemed necessary.
“You gotta help me,” he pleaded.
He was right. I did have to help him. I had taken an oath.
One of the orderlies tried to warn me. “Careful, Doc. This guy could flip out at any moment.”
“It’s true,” Herman agreed. I am sure he would have shrugged, but the restraining table held him too tightly.
“Well, then, how can I help you?” I asked.
“My nose itches.”
I reached out a fingernail and softly scratched his nose. It felt like something you would do for a puppy — scratch him on the tip of the nose. That was exactly what it felt like, scratching the nose of a puppy. As soon as I finished, Herman’s perpetual smile stretched far wider than I would have thought humanly possible. I would learn that being toothless only made Herman’s smile more flexible. The way he looked at me reminded me of that bumper sticker: “Lord, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.” I wanted to be the type of doctor I saw reflected in Herman’s big eyes, filled to the brim with loving kindness and generosity.
“Better?” I asked.
I turned to walk away, my third day as a resident, more determined than ever to become all the healer I could be.
Nights in the emergency room were always draining. Sick babies, the mentally ill, and people too clumsy to be working in restaurants filled the lobby. There were others who sat there and waited: people who were bleeding, people who had worked themselves up into being scared over nothing, and couples who should have never been together. After helping put 17 stitches into the arms of a little boy, I strolled through the lobby to get a candy bar from the vending machine. Herman was still being held on the restraining table.
I was stunned. It had been nearly 12 hours. Herman looked pretty relaxed. I walked over to make smalltalk.
“How you doing?”
“Beautiful day,” Herman replied.
Those words seemed out of place coming from the mouth of a tiny little man strapped to a giant table so tightly that he couldn’t even wiggle.
“Look, I’m new around here,” I offered. “I could use a few friends.”
Herman broke out that ear-to-ear grin. “I’ll be your friend.”
“Is there anything that I can get you, buddy? A bite of my candy bar? Another scratch on the nose?”
“It sure would be nice to be able to scratch my own nose.”
“I’m not sure if I can let you do that,” I returned.
“Sure you can,” Herman said. “You’re my friend.”
Then he looked at me with those big eyes, and I wanted desperately to be the doctor that I saw reflected there. I started to undo one of the arm straps.
One of the orderlies flew across the room. “I wouldn’t do that,” the orderly said in a gruff voice.
I looked at Herman to tell him no, and all I could see were those puppy-dog eyes.
“Please,” he pleaded.
I took another look at Herman and that tiny, emaciated, toothless frame and reckoned … what kind of danger could he really pose?
“I’m the doctor,” I pulled rank, and the orderly stormed off in a huff. I undid one arm strap and the accompanying armbands.
Herman scratched his nose. He scratched and scratched, a little too fervently for my tastes. I grabbed his wrist and moved it gently aside before he began to bleed.
“Thanks, Doc. That was starting to hurt.”
“No problem, buddy.”
“How come a rich, white doctor like you is so nice to a poor, black man like me?”
“Because we’re friends.”
Herman smiled. “Do you think, Doc … that you could loosen this head thing so I could look around? When I’m here, I like to look around and watch television. I hardly ever get to watch television. I also like to people watch. You can learn a lot by people watching.”
It seemed like little enough to ask. What damage could it really cause? It was the only human thing for a healer to do. I left one arm free and unstrapped his head so that Herman could do some people watching.
I was the one who learned the lesson.
A gunshot wound was rolled into the ER, and things were being busily prepped for surgery. The usual emergency room chaos erupted in full conflagration. I flew into action, trying to stay calm, to assess the situation accurately and take a series of steps in an attempt to improve it. I fought down the panic. I fought down the adrenaline. I assisted in the surgery, and two and a half hours later, I emerged, exhausted, fatigued, bewildered, and splattered with blood. I also had the urge for another candy bar.
As I strolled toward the vending machines in the lobby, there was a tremendous commotion. Suddenly, I remembered Herman, and I burst through the doors into the lobby.
There, on the restraining table, were Herman’s clothes, but no Herman. He was certainly still in the house. He was the small, skinny, naked black man being chased by the orderlies. Herman was much faster than he looked. He leaped over chairs and scrambled down the aisles with fancy footwork that would have made “Crazy Legs” Hirsch envious. The orderlies pursued with fervent energy, but Herman was too fast and nimble for them. A spin, a dodge, a leap, a duck, and once again, Herman narrowly avoided capture. The orderlies grunted and cursed as Herman just barely eluded their grasp again and again. Herman jumped over the rows of seats as his tiny penis flapped in the breeze.
The frightened patients and family waiting in the lobby flattened themselves against the wall, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the psychotic runaway. The orderlies were tiring, gasping for breath. Herman’s eyes grew wider and wider. The orderlies argued amongst themselves, as Herman eluded this trap and that. The naked black man leaped over more chairs and spun away, just as the cops arrived with whistles shrieking.
That was when one of the orderlies pointed a finger directly at me. “It was his idea to unstrap the patient!”
I can’t even begin to describe what an awkward, uncomfortable moment it was when every eye in the emergency room lobby turned to look at me. The frightened people plastered up against the wall looked at me in dumbfounded amazement. The cops stared at me like I was stupid, and the orderlies just glared. Only Herman was looking at me with a smile on his face. Everything paused for just an instant so everyone could stare at me. I didn’t know what to say or do.
Herman was the first to react.
He turned and ran, moving his little naked behind as fast as he could toward the exit. No one responded quickly enough to slow Herman down. He cut left to avoid an old woman in a wheelchair and then sprinted down field. The orderlies, the police, and I all followed. As soon as he burst past the double glass doors, stepping outside into open sunlight, he raised his hands above his head like a touchdown, and he broke into a slow trot. All traffic stopped to stare at the celebrating naked black man.
We followed in hot pursuit. As soon as we exited, Herman took off like he was an Olympic track star. Once his feet left the pavement of hospital sidewalk, the orderlies stopped chasing him. Their responsibilities ended right there, but the cops continued the chase. Feeling guilty, I kept running. Herman kept running, too, waving his arms wildly above his head and covering ground quickly. The cops were losing ground. Out of breath, I was falling behind the cops. The scene was alive with screaming sirens as more squad cars could be heard approaching. Herman would have surely escaped if it had not been for what happened next.
Herman sprinted across an intersection as cars swerved and brakes squealed. He narrowly escaped death and reached a street corner where a bank was located. Running up to a long line of cars waiting for the drive-up ATM, he opened the door of the last car and hopped inside.
The suburban soccer mom inside the last car handled events quite well. It is not every day that a toothless, naked black man suddenly hops inside your car while you are waiting for the bank machine. The cops on the scene said Herman and the woman were just talking pleasantly when help arrived. The police pulled Herman from the car and subdued him, sprawling him face down on the sidewalk. There is no real need to frisk a naked man, but they did it anyway. Herman never struggled. He never stopped smiling, either.
By the time I arrived, breathless and late, the lady in the car was already on her phone, telling friends and family about her adventure. The cops were raising Herman to his feet and had wrapped him in a blanket for the sake of public decency.
“Are you taking him straight to jail?” I asked a police officer.
“Actually, we will take him back to the hospital. They have a four-point restraining table they can strap him to. I wonder why he wasn’t already in one?”
“Beats me,” I lied.
As the cops marched Herman away, he turned and made eye contact with me.
“Hey, Doc,” Herman shouted, “I need your help.”
I hesitated, considering the problems that helping Herman had already caused.
“For a buddy?” he added.
“Of course.” I never did learn how to say no to Herman’s eyes.
“Here. Hold this,” Herman said. “I ain’t got no pockets.”
Naked people usually don’t have pockets. Herman handed me 37 cents. “Where did you get this?”
“The nice lady gave me money for a cup of coffee. I think she likes me.”
This particular hospital is famous for psychos and prisoners. Turned out Herman was both. It all came out during the hospital interview. As part of my punishment for setting Herman free, I was forced to write the hospital incident report. Besides, everybody else on staff had already interviewed Herman.
There was a standard incident interview form with a list of suggested questions. “Do you hear voices?” I asked.
“Sure all the time,” Herman replied. “Especially when I watch television. Sometimes, I hear so many voices when I watch television that it is hard to follow the program. Then, it gets scary, and I have to turn away.”
I took notes furiously.
“How come a rich, white doctor like you is so nice to a poor, black man like me?”
“I’m not rich, Herman, and I’m just learning to be a doctor.”
“Sure are nice, though.”
“I think,” I said, “that I am supposed to ask the questions here.” He looked at me with those big eyes, waiting for the next question. I looked at the list. “Can you read minds?”
“Sure, I can read minds.”
I asked a question that departed from the list: “Can you read my mind?”
“Of course not.”
The orderly approached me with a wicked smile on his face. I knew I was in trouble.
“It’s about Herman,” he said.
Ever since the incident where I had unwittingly aided Herman’s escape, every time a problem came up with him, it became my problem. I was a Herman specialist. I did not mind. As the months had passed, this small, homeless man turned out to be the sweetest, gentlest human being I had ever met. Except he really wasn’t homeless anymore. Herman’s schizophrenia was so acute that we could not release him. He was right; I had to try and help him.
“What is the problem?” I asked.
“Herman is putting something up his butt. We think it’s money.”
“Money won’t hurt him.”
“We need to do a rectal examination and make sure he is not putting something up his butt that will injure.” The orderly handed me a box of rubber gloves. “You’re the doctor.”
It was true that I did not want Herman to injure himself. It was also true that, as a medical technician, I was supposed to treat body functions as just a natural part of biological mechanics. All that aside, sticking your hand up somebody’s ass is a dirty, smelly job. Even with a rubber glove. Even with a box of rubber gloves.
Smell the glove. No, I am serious, because there is no way I can describe with mere words the awful stench that my examination of Herman’s rectum released. It was as if Herman’s asshole were a portal to an alternate universe filled with nothing but stink spirits, and my rubber glove had unwittingly opened a door to this other dimension. Even after all these years, those smells sometimes still haunt my nightmares. My latex-enclosed fingers searched all over the inside of Herman’s body, but we found nothing. It did not help my demeanor any that all through the examination, Herman wore a great big smile. I declared the examination finished and threw my rubber gloves in the incinerator trash.
“Herman,” I said, “the orderlies think you are stuffing something up your butt.”
“Yes, sir, I am,” Herman declared proudly.
“The orderlies think it is money.”
“That’s right, Doc. I hide the money where no one can find it, no matter how many times they rob me.”
“Herman …” I pondered my next statement. “Think of poor George Washington, the first president of the United States, just sitting there on the surface of a quarter, and suddenly, he finds himself stuffed up where the sun don’t shine.”
“You know, Doc, I am not surprised that it is a kind man like you who brought up the very same question that I have been pondering for quite some time. ’Cause, you see, on that quarter, Mr. Washington has a nose, and I have always wondered if he can smell it when I fart.”
“Trust me, Herman; he can smell it.” I was speaking from personal experience.
“In that case, I feel awful bad, not just for Mr. Washington, but for Thomas Jefferson, too. Not so much for that little tiny dude with the glasses. He looks like a weasel.”
“Herman, no one is going to rob you in the hospital.”
“I know, Doc. You wouldn’t let them. But what happens if I want to buy a cup of coffee?”
“In the hospital, you can drink all the coffee you want for free.”
“That’s awful nice of you, Doc.”
“Don’t you think that putting money up your butt is an awful thing to do to George Washington?”
Herman shrugged. “I have tried putting Canadian coins up there, but they always keep falling right back out.”
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. The things they never teach you in medical school. Apparently, just like vending machines, some human beings don’t accept Canadian coins.
As the months passed and my residency was nearing its end, Herman began to make remarkable improvements. A lot of the cure was due to finding the right combination of medicines to battle his schizophrenia. A lot of it just seemed to be Herman’s unwavering belief that life was going to get better.
He had told me horror stories of his life on the streets of Detroit. I had never gone to bed hungry, wondering where I would find food the next day, but Herman had. He had been forced to sleep outdoors during Michigan blizzards. The trick, he said, was to wait for a car to get parked and sleep directly beneath the still-warm engine. Herman had been beaten, robbed, and raped so many times that he had come to regard some of the more regular attackers as his friends. Other memories were so terrible that they were wrapped in shrouds of mental delusion. He would apologize for not remembering reality, and I used to reassure him that we were both probably better off.
Herman knew that I had no family in Detroit, and since we were friends, he invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him at the hospital. The last thing I wanted to do was spend a rare day off at work — and a holiday, at that. But the truth was that I had no other plans, no place to go, and no other nearby friends. Just Herman.
Besides, the only nurse who ever flirted back with me was working on Thanksgiving. So there I was, on Thanksgiving, sitting and watching television in Herman’s favorite television-watching place: the emergency room lobby. We were watching The Sound of Music, and Herman wept after almost every song.
“Are you remembering to take your medications?”
He nodded as he shuddered with tears. “Sure wish I had grown up like that.” He pointed at the singing nanny. “It makes me so happy that someone does.”
“Do you still hear voices from the television?”
“Just the ones that are singing.”
“Can you still read minds?”
“Not since you fixed me, Doc, but I know what you’re thinking.”
“Yeah. You’re horny.”
I laughed. “You sure?”
“Doc, every time that nurse over there walks into the room, you just stare and stare. I never thought about it before, but you must be awful lonely without a girlfriend.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“How about if you let me out, and I go back down to the ghetto and see if I can get you a girlfriend. I know lots of real nice girls down there, and they are all looking for boyfriends. A rich doctor like you — you could probably afford a whole lot of them all at once.”
I laughed and tried to imagine what sort of woman a toothless, homeless crack addict could set me up with and what she might look like. I stood up. “Herman, I’m going to grab a drink. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
He nodded enthusiastically. I got up from the chair and paused to flirt with my favorite nurse. When I returned with the coffee, Herman smiled from ear to ear.
“You sure are nice to me, Doc.”
I’ll never forget the last time I saw Herman. He came in to visit me during my last day of residency. His cure was rapid and hopefully effective. He had graduated to living in a halfway house. Life seemed good, and that perpetual smile grew even bigger, if that was possible.
I, on the other hand, looked like crap. Not only was I exhausted from the long hours of residency, but I was also hungover. One of my brothers had arrived to help celebrate the end of my residency. We had jumped the gun a little early and partied the night before by crossing the international border and barhopping in Windsor. Still, it was my last day of residency, and life was good.
Herman arrived in the last minutes of the shift. I was walking toward the door.
“How are you doing, Doc?” he asked, with that incredibly big smile.
“No offense, Doc, but you look like you might be lying. You look like death warmed over.”
I chuckled. It was probably true. “You, on the other hand, look wonderful.”
“Yes, I do,” Herman replied, smiling so big that I could actually see a tooth way in the back that hadn’t fallen out yet.
There followed an awkward moment where neither one of us knew what to say. The awkward moment grew into a pregnant pause. So, I did what seemed appropriate. I stepped forward and gave that tiny, tiny human being a great big bear hug. I squeezed him hard, and it looked like Herman was about to cry. Seeing those big eyes moisten was more than I could bear. I felt myself tear up, and before I could embarrass myself, I started toward the door.
“Remember to stay healthy,” I said, as I started to cry.
“Hey, Doc!” Herman called. “Can I have some spare change for a cup of coffee?”
All at once, I realized what Herman meant when he asked that question. It was why he had asked the woman in the car for spare change. It was why he shoved money up his butt. It must have been a habit from panhandling during his homeless days. When someone gave him spare change for a cup of coffee, it meant that someone liked him; it was a positive affirmation from the universe. If he had coffee money jingling in his pockets, it meant that everything was safe and sound. Of course I had money for coffee.
I fumbled around in my pants pockets before I realized that all I had on me was the spare change I had picked up the day before in Windsor. Herman didn’t accept Canadian money, or at least, he didn’t back when he was ill; maybe things were different now that he was better. I gave it a try and tossed him a coin.
Herman caught the shiny brass coin. “Thanks, Doc. How come a rich, white doctor like you is so nice to a poor, black man like me?”
Suddenly, I remembered that smelly, smelly rectal exam, and the mischievous parts of me thirsted for revenge.
“Herman,” I explained patiently, “you’re not black …” His jaw dropped in amazement. “… but I am.” As soon as I said it, I regretted it.
Herman’s toothless face imploded in confusion and doubt. He put his hand to his temple, massaging his forehead, the way he used to when he was hearing voices. His lower lip quivered and trembled as he struggled to get the next words out: “B-b-b-but you’re God.”
“No, I’m not, Herman,” I soothed. “You are.”
His face broke out in that big, beautiful smile, and his eyes shone with that special radiance that was unique to Herman. “You’re right … I am God.” He looked at the Canadian coin I had tossed him and muttered, “Pretty bird,” before sliding the coin into his pocket.
Naturally, it was a loon.
“Hey, Doc …” Herman cried out the last words he would ever say to me, “Hey, Doc, you’re cured.”
Then, I walked out the door, ready to be all the healer I could be.